Saturday, October 20, 2007

Into the Wild

Chris McCandless left society in the early 1990's, ostensibly in protest of its modern dimensions. The resonance of his story, now over a decade old, persists because while many people identify in contemporary society a broad range of deficiencies, few modify their lives boldly enough to register the full depth of their objections. That McCandless was successful in this regard is doubtless a significant part of what has drawn audiences -- including those that documented his life -- into a sympathetic reading of his account.

McCandless's grievances with modern society were never articulated coherently so much as communicated through his lifestyle. To the extent that he employed a principled critique, he mostly derived it from naturalist writings of the 19th century, or moral philosophers from the same period, such as Tolstoy. Many of these writers extolled simple living in pastoral settings as a means of preserving independence against the dominant institutions of their time -- organized religion and the state, namely. These entities were viewed as unduly coercive at best, actively immoral at worst. The solution prescribed by these writers involved disengagement from mainstream society for the moral health of the individual and clearer discernment of "truth," though usually as a precondition for some alternate, sustainable kind of engagement with the world (as opposed to permanent seclusion).

It is possible to imagine a different outcome for McCandless had his rebellion been informed by different, or at least more varied, intellectual traditions. In one respect, this has to do with intrinsic limitations of 19th century naturalism as applied to late 20th century US society. Opportunities to "live off the land" are not what they may have been in Thoreau's day, when small farming was still a viable enterprise, and land, especially in remote regions, could be had for cheap (at least for those permitted to own it). This is why McCandless was more likely to wind up wandering a state park than anything else: they offer the greatest space for the least commitment, and are less prohibitive than private lands. However, that they also attract people invariably contributed to greater risk-taking in the pursuit of a "genuine" exchange with nature. Such risks would have been less necessary in the 1800's, when "the wild" could not yet be classified as a commodity, and therefore required no exotic undertaking to experience it.

Another consideration when evaluating the role naturalism played in the ultimate fate of McCandless is what drew him to it in the first place. While it is possible he was predisposed to a heightened appreciation for nature, the evidence suggests that McCandless's break with convention drew greater inspiration from his anger at forms of authority which were inducing distress in his personal life. Salient among these was his parents' unsolicited overtures to help administrate his post-graduate development, coupled with the homogenized, materialistic values that such an arrangement implied. McCandless responded to these pressures mainly through evasion, his flight from his family and their lifestyle probably being one of the most destructive options available to him, at least judged by its consequences for others -- arguably for himself, as well.

It is plausible that the fundamental reconciliation which McCandless sought in his wanderings had more to do with knowing how to engage with authority satisfactorily than objecting to modern life per se. Never living past his early 20's, he had not learned how to creatively respond to that which aggrieved him in a way that might also reinforce the relationships he valued. There is no clearer example of this than the equal treatment he dispensed toward his parents, whom he discounted, and his sister, whom he adored. Arguing that this was a necessity is only true under the assumption that McCandless couldn't have stood up to his parents openly, and then proceeded with his plans accordingly. But his reading of nature as a viable alternative to the problems inherent in human relationships created a disincentive to learn how to constructively address them. A different exposure might have led him to become a union organizer or poverty campaigner, civil rights activist and so on -- i.e., someone who confronts social ills without boycotting society. He also might have challenged his parents' presumptions about the kind of person he was meant to become. It will remain an open question what the outcome of such an approach could have been.


Joselle said...

Hi Ryan,

You've managed to write a really human discussion on a life that has now become so mythical. As I watched the film, I could certainly understand McCandless' desire to break away from his parents and the life they tried to force on him but couldn't help but feel that what he did to his sister and the other people who met and loved him was just misguided, if not downright cruel. Had he lived, he may have been able to finally really face other people.

I'm really eager to read the book now.

Brian said...

A wonderfully lucid essay, my brother.

After Joselle and I saw the flick, we talked a little about how difficult and undesireable it is to relentlessly rebel against society when you actually care about how your loved ones, community, etc. will perceive your actions. For me, I guide my activism with a sense of what my mom or grandmom might think if they were to hear about what I'm doing in the world. It seems healthy to me to maintain these sorts of influences/expectations in our activism and ideological pursuits. If balanced properly, we can achieve both freedom and sensibility to accomplish some good things in this life.

Most of us have something to say about oppressive societal forces, but---over the course of our activism (in whatever shape or form)---we somehow strike a balance between idealism and a humanitarian pragmatism. I think that's what the Mutual Menu is largely about for Joselle and me.

And I definitely agree. McCandless could've really served this society a bit better, if he had only allowed his sociological intelligence to flourish just a little more. If he had performed a self-analysis similar to his gutting of that moose, he might have truly realized the extent of what he could offer to the many people whose lives he touched. He was a reincarnation of the son that people lost, he was a young woman's first love, and---according to the article from Outsider Magazine---he was the hardest worker that mill owner had ever encountered.

Understanding and good deeds take time, commitment, and patience. Good work, comrade o' comrades!

Ryan said...

Thanks, guys. You get at the heart of McCandless's problem, which is the inevitable question one faces having opened their eyes to social ills: how do I respond? Suffice it to say, running away from society is too blunt an instrument to be effective in the long term. The tragedy in this case is that McCandless wasn't a committed recluse -- he just happened to die before reentering society. It seems probable that, had he survived, he might have gained whatever he needed to take the next step towards a more constructive role in society.

The book is really worthwhile if you get the chance, especially for the aftermath of his death.